Australian airlines are insisting that seating passengers in middle seats is perfectly safe, despite the country teetering on the edge of a second coronavirus outbreak.
But one aviation expert told The New Daily he forked out for an extra seat on a recent flight just to feel safe.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce has maintained on-board health measures dissolve the need for social distancing on airplanes. As of Friday, Virgin Australia and Jetstar were continuing to sell tickets for middle seats.
Aviation specialist Greg Bamber isn’t so certain sitting so close to other passengers is safe in the middle of a pandemic – especially when masks aren’t mandatory.
The Monash University professor went to great lengths to ensure he had a vacant seat next to him on his recent round-trip with Jetstar.
“Most flight attendants and most passengers did not wear masks,” Professor Bamber said.
“I think that Qantas/Jetstar should rethink seating people in middle seats on flights.”
But Qantas said its approach was considered safe by both state and federal authorities.
“We completely reject these claims,” a Qantas spokesperson said.
“They are misinformed and go against the advice Australia’s Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Medical Officers in each state and territory who have endorsed the approach taken by airlines.”
“Health Minister Greg Hunt has said the Medical Expert Panel, consisting of the Chief Medical Officers, believes the risk of transmission of COVID-19 on flights is low.”
Professor Bamber, who is the co-author of Up in the Air, told TND he paid not only for his seat, but for the middle seat next to him, in order to at least “try and give some physical distancing”, a process he said was expensive and complicated.
He said on the first leg of his journey, his plane was just eight seats off being full – with middle seats definitely occupied.
Passengers are handed “wellness” packs before boarding, which include masks.
Wearing masks onboard a flight is not mandatory, and Professor Bamber said it was not even strongly encouraged on his flights.
Qantas’ medical director Dr Ian Hosegood says the data shows the risk of catching the coronavirus on a plane was “extremely low”.
“That’s due to a combination of factors, including the cabin air filtration system, the fact people don’t sit face-to-face and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier,” Dr Hosegood said.
“As far as the virus goes, an aircraft cabin is a very different environment to other forms of public transport.”
Choosing profits over people
Qantas head Mr Joyce has repeatedly boasted the safety of the controversial measure – even taking a flight in the seat himself.
Mr Joyce has said the upgraded, hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters onboard reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission on flights, and further, that to properly observe social distancing on board would be economically unviable for passengers and airlines alike.
Consumer rights expert at the University of Melbourne Jeannie Paterson was shocked airlines were allowed to disobey social distancing practises on flights.
Professor Paterson questioned if airlines were contravening the consumer guarantee guideline of providing care and provision of services.
“I think it’s quite surprising that proper efforts aren’t being taken to protect passenger safety,” Professor Paterson told The New Daily.
They’re flouting social distancing requirements. And their only justification is that it isn’t economical? Wow.
“It’s just outrageous.”
Deakin University marketing professor Michael Callaghan said this was a case of Qantas seeking to maximise profits, in behaviour that was “ethically and morally bankrupt”.
“Unless the government pushes back, we’re going to end up with a serious second surge (in virus numbers).”
University of New South Wales infectious diseases expert and Kirby Institute head of biosecurity research Professor Raina MacIntyre said the use of masks and disinfectant wipes was a risk mitigator, but even improved air-cycling and HEPA filters would not reduce the risk to zero.
The fine print
While Mr Joyce is adamant you’re as safe on the middle seat as you are anywhere else on one of his aircraft, that hasn’t stopped Jetstar charging passengers to choose where they sit.
While the budget airline has always charged a fee for passengers to choose their seat ($7 for a regular seat, $12 for extra leg room), selecting ‘I don’t mind where I sit’ during the booking process has a gentle reminder: “If you want to avoid the middle seat, choose from the options above.”
Professor Paterson said this wording – appearing to leverage COVID-19 transmission fears linked to potentially being flanked by two strangers on an airplane – was extortionist.
A Jetstar spokesperson told The New Daily this wording had been on the site for years “before COVID”.
But Professor Paterson said it carried a lot more weight in the current climate.
The government has been quizzed about why airlines were able to bypass the strict social distancing laws that have kept the rest of the country’s businesses on their knees.
Deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly in May responded, saying planes were “probably not as safe as an outdoor cafe”, conceding Australia needed its airline industry.
Professor Kelly said the government had been in discussions with Qantas since January about how to safely resume flying.
“We made it very clear that like all other industries in Australia, they needed to do their own risk assessment and come up with their own way of mitigating that risk,” he said.
Dr Callaghan said Qantas should be “very, very careful” with their actions, as they’re liable for them.
I think that if you’re a (head) of an organisation that (introduces) corporate policy that puts people at risk … you should be charged with second-degree manslaughter,’’
– Dr Callaghan
“You’re the one that should be held responsible.”
Jetstar and Virgin Australia confirmed on Friday their policies remain to seat passengers in the middle rows. Qantas did not respond to requests from TND.